Pauls Letter to the RomansOf the 27 books in the New Testament, 14 have traditionally been attributed to the Apostle Paul of Tarsus. These 14 books all take the form of letters addressed to a given individual or community. In the traditional order of the New Testament, these 14 books follow the Book of Acts, according to length, and separated into three groups:

  • 9 letters addressed to communities
  • 4 letters addressed to individuals
  • The Book of Hebrews

The first of these “community letters” is the letter to the Christians in Rome. Most likely written during the height of Paul’s missionary activity, between A.D. 50 and 58, these letters are some of the earliest surviving Christian documents – predating the earliest of the Gospels, Mark, by at least ten years. What makes this letter to the Romans even more interesting is that Paul did not plant the Christian church in Rome. Although it is not known when exactly the first Christians began to gather together in the capital city, it is clear that they were beginning to be established during the reign of Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54). We also know that there was some sort of ruckus which developed involving the Jews in Rome which caused Claudius to order all Jews out of the city. Not only do we have writings from the Roman historians Suetonius (A.D. 69-122) and Cassius Dio (A.D. 150-235), but we also have verification from Paulus Orosius – a 5th Century Christian historian. Furthermore, in Acts 18:2 we are told that Paul’s companions Aquila and Priscila were from Rome and part of this expelled group. Historians believe that some of the issues that Paul addresses to the Roman Christians were a direct result of the Jews being expelled and then coming back to find the Gentile Christians in charge of the church!

During the winter of 57–58 a.d., Paul was in the Greek city of Corinth. From Corinth, he wrote this longest single letter in the New Testament, which he addressed to “God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Like most New Testament letters, this letter is known by the name of the recipients, the Romans. Paul’s letters tended to be written in response to specific crises. For instance, 1 Corinthians was written to reprove the Christian community in Corinth for its internal divisions and for its immoral sexual practices. But Romans is remarkably devoid of this kind of specificity, addressing broad questions of theology rather than specific questions of contemporary practice. Whereas other Pauline letters—2 Corinthians, for instance—are full of impassioned rhetoric and personal pleas, Romans is written in a solemn and restrained tone. Perhaps this solemnity can be explained by the fact that not only was the Roman church not founded by Paul himself, but at the time when he wrote Romans, Paul had never even visited Rome (although Chapter 16 of Romans does indicate that he had acquaintances there). Writing to a community largely composed of strangers, then, Paul may have felt compelled to use the restrained and magisterial declarations of Roman style, rather than the impassioned pleas and parental sternness that permeate his letters to the churches at Corinth.

Because he is not personally familiar with the Roman church, Paul begins his letter by introducing himself. He has been “called to be an apostle,” and his mission is “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles” (1:1–5). Paul follows his introduction with a flattering greeting to the Roman church, and expresses his desire to preach in Rome someday. Paul gives a summary of the theme of his letter: “The Gospel . . . is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the Gospel a righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith…” (1:16–17).

Paul begins the meat of his letter with a discussion of the state of humanity before the possibility of salvation through faith in Jesus. He tells how Gentiles worshipped idols, disdaining devotion to God, and how Jews failed to follow the law properly, acting hypocritically by proclaiming allegiance to Jewish law while surreptitiously sinning. Paul says that God’s ancestral promise to the Jews, symbolized by circumcision, does not bring automatic salvation: “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual” (2:29). Paul concludes, “We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9).

Paul teaches that salvation from sin is only possible through faith. Paul cites the example of the biblical patriarch Abraham, who received God’s blessing and passed it on to his descendants through “the righteousness of faith” (4:13). The free gift of grace, Paul continues, unearned and undeserved, is a product of God’s love manifested toward the unworthy. Whereas Adam’s fall brought sin and death into the world, Jesus’s sacrifice brought grace and life. The importance of baptism, Paul explains, is that baptism initiates a new life of grace and purity: the sinner symbolically dies, baptized into the death of Jesus, and the person who emerges is “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Christians, then, must be governed by holiness, not by sin: holiness alone will lead to eternal life. Jewish law ceases to be binding: the law arouses sinful passions, and as people who are dead to sin, Christians become dead to the law. Paul urges the Romans to live not “according to the flesh” but rather by the Spirit (8:4). Through the Spirit, all believers become spiritual children of God, called by God to glory. This potential is a source of strength for the Christian: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:31).

Paul’s next topic is the problem of reconciling the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ with the Old Testament promise of the salvation of the Jewish people. This section begins with a lamentation, as Paul, who was himself born a Jew, expresses his wish to help the Israelites, the supposed firstborn children of God. But he goes on to explain that the Christian covenant of grace is by no means a betrayal of Abraham’s covenant with God. Those who have faith in Jesus, who believe “with the heart,” are “children of the promise,” the spiritual children of Israel (10:10, 9:8). The genetic children of Israel, the Jews, stumbled when they mistook Jewish law for the means to salvation. But the Jews have not been entirely cast aside. Paul teaches that eventually the Jews will come to express faith in Jesus, enabling God to keep his original promise to them.

Finished with his summary of Christian doctrine, Paul embarks upon a lengthy exhortation to the Romans, advising them on the proper means of living a Christian life. Harmony, humility, and love are his main concerns. He urges charity, forbearance, and submission. Paul returns to the apocalyptic theme on which he dwells in his other letters. He says that it is doubly important to act righteously in an apocalyptic age. In a long segment, Paul mandates tolerance and freedom of religious conscience within the church. The strong in faith are not to judge and reject the weak in faith—that is, those who have given up Jewish law are to accept the observances of those who continue to practice Jewish law. Paul finishes this section with a set of Old Testament quotations about the worship of God spreading among all nations.

Paul concludes his letter with a section in which he discusses his own ministry, proving his authority through a discussion of his credentials: “I have reason to boast of my work for God” (15:17). He informs the Romans that he is preparing to bring the contributions of the Greek and Macedonian churches to Jerusalem, where he speculates that he might run into difficulties. Chapter 16 contains a long list of greetings, in which Paul sends the greetings to the Roman Christians, warning the Romans to be wary of “those who cause dissensions and offenses” (16:17).

As you read through Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the deep theological language and weighty perspectives you find. But, if you keep your mind on the birds-eye view and remember who Paul is writing to and what he is trying to say then the overall picture will become clearer – leading to your understanding of the details.